February, 2001, Vol. 124, No. 2
Experience of temps
Book reviews from past issues
Experience of temps
Temps: The Many Faces of the Changing Workplace. By Jackie Krasas Rogers. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2000, 183 pp., bibliography. $39.95, cloth; $15.95, paper.
The temporary help work arrangement has been extensively researched and analyzed in recent years. In her book, Temps: The Many Faces of the Changing Workplace, Professor Jackie Krasas Rogers seeks to uncover the faces behind the data. She acknowledges the academic and statistical "conceptualizations and generalizations" of temps, but aims to focus on the arrangement using one-on-one interviews with temps and temp agency representatives. The analysis here is almost strictly sociological, framed in terms of race and gender.
Rogers’ interest in the subject began when she observed temp workers being "segregated" from permanent employees at a Los Angeles insurance company she worked for in the late 1980s. Later during graduate school, she temped for a summer and later went back to this same agency to conduct interviews for this book. She conducted 35 interviews of temp clerical workers and temp agency staff between 1993 and 1996 in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania. Of the 35 interviewees, 7 were temp agency representatives. In addition to interviewing temp clerical workers, she also interviewed 14 temporary attorneys and 3 representatives of temporary lawyer agencies. Although the focus of the book is clerical temps, she wanted to compare their experiences with those of the lawyer temps.
The book is accessible and well written, although its sociological jargon may be unfamiliar to non-sociologists. The author’s analysis is peppered with excerpts from interviews with the temps and agency representatives, making the book an interesting and quick read.
There are some problems with the analysis from an economist’s viewpoint. Perhaps the starkest shortcoming of the study is the small, concentrated sample. The subtitle of the book, The Many Faces of the Changing Workplace, is misleading, not only because of the small number of interviews, but also because nearly all the interviews were conducted in Los Angeles between 1993 and 1996. As the author acknowledges, this is a particularly bad reference period because the local economy was still recovering from the 1991–92 recession. The unemployment rate from 1993–96 averaged nearly 3 percentage points higher than the national average. Moreover, while the author did interview both sexes, nearly all races, and Hispanics, many of the interviewees did not embody the typical temp. A large proportion were aspiring actors and actresses, and many were much older than the average temp worker.
Perhaps most problematic is the one-sidedness of the analysis. The author clearly takes a negative view of the industry and includes excerpts from interviews that support her view. Almost none of the clerical temps interviewed actually liked their situation, and many spoke of outright discrimination or even verbal abuse from clients or agency representatives. In contrast, data from the Current Population Survey’s supplements on Contingent and Alternative Work Arrangements show that about one-third of temps actually prefer their arrangement to a permanent job. Many of the positive attributes of temping, such as flexibility, were not only ignored, but challenged by the author. In analyzing the statements of the interviewees, Rogers asserts that temps are actually in very inflexible work arrangements because many of them reported that they were reluctant to turn down an assignment for fear that the agency reps would not call them for future work. It may be that the geographically homogenous sample combined with the economic conditions at the time of the interviews skewed the results of the research toward people who were temping strictly for economic reasons rather than for personal ones. Another positive aspect of temping that the author ignores is that, particularly during downturns in the economy, temporary jobs may make the labor market more fluid. For example, during periods of poor economic conditions, temping may enable some job losers to avoid unemployment as they transfer between jobs.
Despite these problems, Rogers does shed light on some interesting issues associated with temporary work. As mentioned above, the focus of her analysis is gender, race, and class issues as they relate to temping. For example, she emphasizes the stigma attached to temping that stereotypes all temps as "flakes" who are not responsible or motivated enough to find "real" jobs. She also says that temping, especially clerical temping, is seen as women’s work. Therefore, male temps experience a kind of double discrimination—first for being a temp, and second for being a male temp. Rogers also includes anecdotes that support her theory that client companies prefer young, white, female temps to minorities. Perhaps the most important point Rogers makes is that temps are, in a way, caught between two opposing interests and that they are at the mercy of both the agency and the client company. Rogers argues that neither has the temps’ best interests in mind—the agency has a pool of replacements if a temp is viewed as difficult, and the client company can request another temp whenever it wants. These insights are important because they cannot be gleaned from the large body of empirical evidence that exists about temp agency workers. However, temp workers may not be as vulnerable in the tight labor market of the early 2000s as were Rogers’ subjects, even if her description of the Los Angeles market is accurate.
Rogers concludes her analysis with a look at temporary attorneys. She chose temp attorneys because they differ dramatically from clerical temps due to the high prestige, pay, and education levels that come with being a lawyer. Rogers reasoned that any similarities in experiences between the two groups must be the result of being a temp. While the hypothesis is interesting, it is curious why she chose this particular occupation. It may be very difficult to draw conclusions from this analysis because the number of temporary lawyers in the United States is quite small. For instance, there were no temps who gave their occupation as attorney in any of the three Current Population Survey supplements on Contingent and Alternative Work Arrangements. In fact, working as a temp at all is rare; only 1 in every 100 workers is employed by a temp agency in their primary job. Perhaps the analysis would have been stronger if Rogers had chosen to look at temps in more typical temp jobs such as computer-related occupations, for example.
Overall, Rogers found few similarities in the experiences of temp attorneys and their clerical counterparts. Temp attorneys were paid very well, and nearly all had chosen the arrangement for the flexibility it provided. Most of the temp lawyers were women with families who were tired of working 60-80 hour weeks in an atmosphere where, by their perceptions, having children is discouraged. Temping allowed them to continue practicing law on their own terms. One similarity Rogers did see between clerical and lawyer temps was that in many cases both groups were given "busy work" or routine, monotonous duties. Rogers calls this "deskilling" in her analysis. For clerical temps this often took the form of filing or answering phones, and for attorneys such duties might include making 1-day court appearances or appearing at depositions. The weakness with this observation is that the author had no control group to compare the temps to. It could almost certainly be argued that workers in "regular" clerical and legal jobs sometimes perform tasks that are monotonous. Temp attorneys also reported feeling that there was a stigma attached with temping—that it was a "mommy job." However, most considered themselves to be "contractors" rather than temps and did not view their situations as inferior.
Although this anecdotal analysis was one-sided and the subjects were not necessarily representative of temp workers in general, it is useful in presenting some of the negative experiences that temporary help workers encounter in their day-to-day work lives. The book may be of particular interest for those who wish to improve the working conditions of temps, as well as for the agency representatives who must strive to make temp work more attractive to workers in a tight labor market.
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